McCain: Planetariums are Foolish (UPDATED)

Update:  At the end of this article, giving McCain one last shred of the benefit of the doubt, I suggest that perhaps he doesn’t know what a planetarium is, maybe confusing it with some kind of fancy nickelodeon device or 1893 World’s Fair attraction.  All of this despite McCain having trained in a planetarium at the Naval Academy.  Well, now we can’t even consider that, since he visited a planetarium less than a month ago:

The presumed Republican presidential candidate, McCain was scheduled to speak at 9 a.m. today to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Orlando. Afterward, he planned to head for Cocoa, where he will attend an 11:15 closed-door, roundtable discussion with 18 local space industry leaders .

The meeting at the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium at Brevard Community College is closed to the public. Although McCain is expected to make a brief public statement afterward.

That’s the planetarium I helped build in 1994 – I know it very, very well.  He probably walked by my old office, and sat under the planetarium dome where I spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears, silently nodding his head while looking up in awe, “So this is what a plantation looks like.”

He was waiting until my power went out for a few days to say this.

If you needed any more evidence that a certain major political party – at least on the Federal level – is on the completely wrong side of science education in this country, I give you the latest quote from Presidential Candidate John McCain:

McCain responded by criticizing Obama for seeking more than $900 million in these earmarks, by one count.

‘‘That’s nearly a million every day, every working day he’s been in Congress,’’ McCain said. ‘‘And when you look at some of the planetariums and other foolishness that he asked for, he shouldn’t be saying anything about Governor Palin.’’ (emphasis mine)

I can just about hear all the hushed “oooohhhs” from the science education community, like Dustin Diamond had just slapped Jack Lambert with a white glove.  Oh no he didn’t!

It’s no secret that science education in primary and secondary schools in the U.S. is poor when compared to the rest of the industrialized world.  That’s the polite way to say it.  You could also say without hyperbole that it’s in shambles, and that since America is by far the richest country in the world, the fact that we can’t even teach our own kids the basics of science and math is an embarrassment that weakens the foundation for this country’s future.

In math, only four countries had average scores lower than the United States. Students in 23 countries had a higher average score, and those in two countries did about the same as the Americans.

Mark S. Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics in the Education Department, said the exam isn’t designed to measure a student’s recall of facts. Instead, he said, it tests a student’s ability to apply knowledge using “more sophisticated concepts and deeper reasoning skills.”

As a lifelong planetarian, I can attest firsthand about how important these unique immersive classrooms are to the traditional classroom.  I’ve worked in, managed and directed planetariums in blue-collar industrial centers (Pittsburgh), the South (Florida), the Northeast (Boston), and the Heartland ™ (Kansas), and no matter what part of the country you’re in, red state or blue state, planetariums play the same important role in educational experience of children all over America.  If you could make an argument for anything, it would be there are too few planetariums.

Teachers are struggling in their classrooms just to teach just basic math, science and literacy skills; so many other necessary topics just get left out our kids’ education, or are completely ignored.  And since No Child Left Behind has been implemented, too many teachers are forced to spend their time teaching to the specific tests that it mandates.  All kinds of subjects are chucked to the dustbin, much to the detriment of students.

It’s hard to believe that astronomy and space – the study of the entire universe around us — everything, really – is one of those leftover subjects for many teachers, covered briefly, with little appreciation for the amazing magnitude and – well, fun – that is the study of the cosmos.  This is where planetariums play a crucial role.  Many teachers actually rely on bringing their kids to the planetarium and museum to cover the basics they’re required to cover.  And many planetariums and museums actually take on the community task of training primary school teachers what to teach kids about not only astronomy, but physics, planetary science, chemistry and how to properly pronounce “Uranus.”

Many astronauts, engineers, scientists, and physicists cite their planetarium experience as a young adult as the inspiration for their careers.  And something tells me that McCain is a fan of home schooling. Well, home school teachers use planetariums and museums extensively (to their credit) to teach their kids about the Universe and the wonders of nature.  Why does McCain hate resources for home schools?

So planetariums are very much involved in the direct classroom education of the very kids we need to teach science to.  That’s Foolishness You Can Believe In.  But beyond that, and even more important than the direct lessons – is the role planetariums have in inspiring the next generation to envision themselves participating in a future of science and technology.  Students and adults take away an incredible sense of awe from their planetarium experience, of being a part of something amazing as they fly through canyons on Mars and investigate the strange galaxies that contain hundreds of billions of stars. The planetarium allows kids to excersize their most amazing asset – their imagination – by simply giving them the place to throw their thoughts to the possible, as they sit entranced under the stars.  I always got chills when I would first turn down the lights in the planetarium, to reveal the beauty of the night sky to a roomful of school kids.  “Wwwoooooowwww!” they always collectively would shout to the stars.  You tell me of another math or science lesson that gets that kind of response within the first minute.

More “foolishness,” please.

Children enjoy the stars and planets at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Children enjoy the stars and planets at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The money Obama got from the Federal government was for Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, the country’s first planetarium.  The $3M (which I think is the price of a drink holder on a B-2 bomber) is for Adler’s Sky Theater,  the dome in the Adler Planetarium complex that’s devoted to teaching the night sky’s stars and constellations – a part of nature truly lost behind the glow of today’s skyscraper and strip mall parking lights.

Adler Planetarium's Sky Theater

There couldn’t be any better use of such an “earmark” – the education about an important endangered species in nature – the Universe above us all.   All in one of America’s premiere historic science teaching facilities no less.  I guess McCain really hated the latest updating of the Smithsonian’s Einstein Planetarium, which he had to vote on, or his state’s own recently renovated planetarium at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, and I’m sure he’s banging his fist about the “foolishness” of the upcoming state-of-the-art planetarium at the University of Arizona’s Science Center located in Tuscon, one of America’s astronomy capitals.

Does McCain hate science education?  Actually, I really don’t think so.  Instead, I’m willing to bet that he doesn’t even know what a planetarium even is  – even though he spent his college years training in one in a standard course in Celestial Navigation at the Naval Academy).  Now that’s Irony You Can Believe In.

Planetariums are Bridges to the Future, and America would be a much better place if all the congressional earmarks went to projects like them.

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31 Responses to “McCain: Planetariums are Foolish (UPDATED)”

  1. Karen K Says:

    Great article, Davin.

    Planetariums are so important for helping to create educated, reponsible citizens. Not only do some young people decide to take on science as a career, but many others are able to gain a good understanding of science. Trips to the planetarium encourage kids’ natural curiosities and teaches them that science is understandable and rewarding. For future prosperity, America needs science-literate people in all areas, including politics.

    One correction for you: Obama didn’t actually get money from the Federal Government for those earmarks. The Adler project was not funded, according to the Adler Planetarium.

  2. Science Friday with Ira Flatow | The Perfect Silence Says:

    [...] toddlers, and native Pittsburgher, planetary scientist and space artist William Hartmann (who has a very “foolish” hi tech planetarium show produced by my old planetarium in Pittsburgh based on his book A [...]

  3. McCain’s planetariophobia | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine Says:

    [...] to that effect. You can also get opinions all over the place: Universe Today, SpaceWriter, Davin Flateau, Discovery Space, Wonkette, the Chicago Tribune, even [...]

  4. KC Says:

    I’d rather see my tax dollars spent on a Bridge to the Future rather than a Bridge to Nowhere any day!

  5. metapsyche Says:

    For McCain to say “Planetariums and other foolishness” a few months before the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) is harsh.

  6. Marnie Says:

    Unfortunately, Bush, Palin, McCain all blew off much of their early educational opportunities, so they literally don’t know what they missed. Unfortunately they are comfortable with that status.
    And the rest of us are paying the price for their ignorance.

    Curiosity and the drive to satisfy one’s curiosity are so very important to humans, and mammals as a group.

    Beware of those politicians who have reached a “comfort zone” of knowledge, because it’s really their own ignorance that gives them comfort.

  7. Discover Magazine slams McCain for his lies about planetarium project - Dallas Dance Music - Dallas nightlife, music, tickets, and more Says:

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  9. Mike in NY Says:

    Oh poor you, you want to insult an American hero and elect a taxing, inexperienced moron because he insulted your toy? Most Americans haven’t set foot in a planetarium since a 5th grade trip and they were only happy to to get a day out of school.

    The ones who have were either a chaperone on a 5th grade trip or some stoner who got roped into some crappy laser-rock show.

    Planetariums are fun a few times per lifetime, and I do not deny interesting, engaging and educational for young children but politicizing their importance against what is at stake in a Presidential election “N” in nerd.

  10. NoMcCain Says:

    McCain isn’t the saintly “hero” you think he is. And who’s fault is it that Americans don’t visit planetariums?
    politicizing a planetarium? McCain was the one who said it first. Scientists are merely responding and correcting him. Who says they are for Obama in the first place?
    Your disdain for science is nauseating.

  11. ttim Says:

    …sad that we can scrape up a trillion dollars for Wall Street but can’t scrape up 3 million to inspire our kids……we deserve to be where we are.

  12. Laurie Says:

    I’m not sure politicizing the planetarium issue is fair. However, it points to the larger issue of Palin’s ideals of anti-stem cell research, book banning, abstinence-only education, teaching of Creationism in public schools, etc.

    I would be VERY concerned for the future of science if McCain won and, God-forbid, something happen to him leaving Palin at the helm.

  13. Karin Says:

    Ironically, my husband and I took our four-year-old to visit a local planetarium for the first time on October 3. My son wore an Obama t-shirt. (We bought our tickets using a military discount, as my husband just returned from Iraq. Mike in NY, John McCain is no hero to Veterans.) I’m sad but not surprised to learn that McCain is no hero to Scientists. We will never be able to move our country forward utilizing the latest technological advances if we have a leader who can’t even understand email.

  14. Megan Says:

    I think politicizing it is absolutely fair. McCain loves to go on & on about how American workers are “the best in the world,” but doesn’t want to support education to keep them competitive. Advances in science and technology are part of what made us the world power we are today, and critical to – guess what – our economy! This IS what is at stake in a Presidential election. Just another example of how the Republican talking points fall apart once you start to examine how they play out long-term.

  15. Desmond Says:

    to “”mike in NY”

    American hero? if you want to talk about American heroes why don’t we bring up the millions of teachers and professors that use planetariums as a valuable teaching resource in the classroom? we are lucky enough to have a planetarium in my home town (the same town the benefactor of the Adler planetarium (Max Adler) is from) and i can tell you that it is one of the jewels of Elgin, Il. they aren’t just used to teach about things beyond earth, we used it to learn about weather patterns and the atmosphere of earth, and thousands of children are taken there every year to be given the chance to see what science has to offer. it inspired me to want to learn and it is very un-American of you to place the pride of one man above the importance of educating children (whether once in the 5th grade or throughout a lifetime).

  16. tim Says:

    ….ever see a kid’s face after he or, more important, she has visited a planetarium? Priceless!!!!

  17. jimwashburn Says:

    poor john he has run out of ideas and now is bashing science. I laugh at this poor mans ideals.What would he have done, he can always say what is bad but never tell us how he would have done it. If he is elected i think he will influence congress to cut funding to science, Thank GOD he cant make laws he would be a dictator.

  18. Jewell Says:

    And to think McCain calls himself a hero! Apparently, John wasn’t thinking of the educational aspects a planetarium can provide. And children aren’t the only ones who can benefit from and enjoy it. I’d much rather we spend 3M on a planetarium projector than to keep sending 10B/month to Iraq. If McCain doesn’t believe in spending money towards education, he’s no hero to me and he doesn’t deserve to be President. I don’t feel McCain is really in it to help this country, he’s just after the title.

  19. Randy Says:

    Sure, planetariums are great. So are aquariums, libraries, parks, and anything which inspires use to greater understanding of the universe around us.
    But it is foolishness for the federal government to fund such things. The resposibility for education lies squarely on the shoulders of state and local governments. We don’t live in a centrally planned socialist state where the national government decides what we should know and then provides the resources. Our system of government is designed to allow the greatest degree of freedom for individuals, and state/local governments. Federal dollars means federal mandates/restrictions; there is no free lunch. I’m sure the state of Illinois, the surrounding counties and cities, as well as those who have been inspired by a visit to the Adler Planetarium could easily and would happily fund the new projector.
    That is the point. With thousands of requests like these funded through the federal budget, it will continue to swell out of control.
    The remarks were not a cut at science or education, but a cut at the foolishness of the federal government attempting to fill all needs for all people. We have a constitution. Most people heven’t read it since high school, but we should all probably check it out once in a while. We have limited the Federal Governments authority for a very important reason.

    P.S.: Laurie, please do some reasearch outside of your current sources. The urban myths you repeat concerning Sarah Palin are a complete fabrication of a few propagandists. Even the major network news sources have called them such.

  20. gabe Says:

    Now I understand why science in the U.S. has been fueled by the contributions of foreigners working in U.S. universities in more recent times. And I also understand where are the brightest Americans nowadays; creating the “financial engineering marvels” (a.k.a “weapons of mass destruction”) that now threatens not only the U.S. economy but that of the world… thanks, McPain!

  21. Tony Says:

    Poor “Mike in NY”, not many people are agreeing with your opinion and for good reason. I typically don’t post to forums, but your comment just knocked me over. I agree with Marine, it’s the Bush’s, McCain’s, Palin’s, and “Mike in NY”‘s of this world that keeps our country set back. It’s really time for change! And this comment “Inexperienced moron”… come on now, drop the inexperienced part and call it what you are “Mike in NY”.

  22. ccpetersen Says:

    Good article Davin! Don’t let them mess with the planetarium! ;)

  23. Edward Says:

    Whether you’re ‘pro-planetarium’ or ‘anti-planetarium’ is irrelevant.

    The point is: it’s a use of federal money to benefit a single state at a time when the country cannot afford it.

    Moreover, this is not something the federal government should be funding. Read Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.

    If Illinois has extra cash they would like to spend right now, please do. The federal government does not. I do not, and I don’t live in IL. And the Senate is not your personal playground for pet projects in your state.

    This goes for planetariums…and any other state projects you can think of. Science is irrelevant in this argument.

  24. snafubar Says:

    I have a member of my family who is in her late 40′s. She never went to college, but she did get good enough grades in Catholic school that she could have gone to just about any one she wanted to, and her family had the money to send her there. She has two brothers who both obtained PhD’s, and one has worked at one of the National Laboraties. This cousin, however, said to me in the last few months “Do you really believe that scientists know why the sun stays up in the sky? Scientists only know what God wants them to know, when he wants them to know it”

    See the logic? We don’t really need to learn anything of our own initiative, because God, in his infinite wisdom, only imparts knowledge upon humanity when God feels it is appropriate. After all, if God had allowed Louis Pasteur to discover the germ theory of disease and Joseph Lister to discover how to kill those germs before the great Plague, how would God have taught all those sinners what their sins wrought upon themselves?

    See? Knowing how to make soap before your time makes God angry.

    So a planetarium is a place that should not be funded if God doesn’t want it to be funded….

    My cousin is not unique. And yet there she is, living comfortably and benefiting from all the benefits that modern science bring to her life, all the while believing that science as a human endeavor is not only pointless, but impossible. Humans with investigative spirit and a quest for knowlege did not learn anything on their own, they were only empty vessels for God to choose at His whim to tell us what God has know since time immortal but kept a secret for His own purposes.

    And if we have people who are allowed to vote in this country that can maintain that kind of cognitive dissonance and be perfectly content not understanding the hypocrisy in their thinking, we should not be surprised by Sarah Palin, or the fact that a bridge to knowwhere that cost $212 million and served less than 60 people can be justified while a planetarium request for $3 million that would serve thousands of people each year can be considered “an overhead projector” and a waste of our taxpayers hard earned money.

    Interesting how Republicans all say that we need to have the most highly educated and technically adept citizens to remain competitive in a global economy, but whenever it comes to providing the support to make those claims a reality, somehow the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality takes precedence.

    I have been to the Adler planetarium, and I can say that money spent to open the minds and inspire the adventure and creativity of our citizens is money well spent for the benefit of all of us.

  25. Bud Says:

    You people are all off of your logical rockers. Planetariums may be entertaining, but they are completely unnecessary for education. They don’t make kids better at math, to respond to that idiotic comment. 3 million dollars to have a movie-theater version of something they could learn in a book? Yes, because ooh-ing and ahh-ing over flashy lights is what will help us beat the Chinese, eh?

  26. Grant Says:

    I don’t know if I can call myself a “lifelong planetarian,” but I did volunteer at the South Florida Science Museum’s planetarium in my misspent youth. It ignited a lifelong interest in science.

    And now, after seeing your blog among those picked up by Yahoo News, I was inspired to start something on Facebook:

    Mad Scientists. It may help raise awareness. By funding ORBITING SPACE LASERS for the greater glory of America’s oldest planetarium. Or at least get people thinking about them!

  27. Jewell Says:

    To those who are so concerned about the money for the planetarium- forget about it! It didn’t get funded anyway, so that senile old fool they call McCain is complaining for no reason. But I do feel our government should spend more money on science and education. I retired from the military, and during my time I saw an awful lot of waste- and I’m not talking just a few thousand. So I would much rather see that money spent on a planetarium than to see it get totally wasted on something that either isn’t going to get used, or will only benefit a few.
    As for Bud, if you think planetariums are only about light shows- well, I guess you just aren’t interested in science. Perhaps spending big money to watch overpaid athletes is more your speed!

  28. Repost: McCain’s planetariophobia | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine Says:

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    Now if only some people would get this.

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